Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reflections on Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta May 8th, 9th and 10th. Still Riding the High 17 Days Later.

The dust has finally settled and I am not referring to the dirt devils over the grass barren field at the Piedmont stage at the third annual Shaky Knees Festival but, rather, my messy life. A full 17 days after the event and I am finally able to share some of my thoughts. I apologize for being the last one to cross the finish line but I can tell you that even though so much time has passed I am still floating on a cloud of highness and not from the potent clouds of pot smoke literally billowing from the crowd at Mac DeMarco but from the positive high of the Shaky Knees Festival itself. It was lovely, crazy and even awe inspiring.

By any definition, Shaky Knees was a tremendous indie festival and a huge success. It also felt like a well oiled machine. Set times seemed to go off without a hitch. While there may of been some mechanical hiccups, at least the acts I saw overall had great support from the sound guys which is not always the case at large festival. At the end of the day (all three of them) I can say that the Festival for me felt pretty chill with moments of exhilaration and moments of being deeply touched too (more on that later).

Logistically, everything felt right. The stages were laid out a smart distance from each other and, while there were some hills to commandeer, the walk from any point to another was probably not more than 10 minutes.  Most stages had areas cordoned off for the vips who paid extra to be able to leisurely fill in on either side of the stage at any time so no need to park their asses early to get a good spot. Truthfully, at first, that bothered me. It felt so bourgeoisie and some of the performers took some friendly jabs at the vips while referred to us holding down the middle as the peasants.  While the thought of vip sections seems the total opposite of the indie / d.i.y. spirit (that I feel a kinship with) a rock festival has little to do with that world and I suppose that the $500 to $600 Vip ticket price kept the peasant price down to around $200 which is a steal compared to many similar such festivals. Still, often times those areas were not that full and not having them there would of allowed the die hard fans who braved the heat to secure good spots able to get a bit closer. Anyway, despite the free beers that the Vips enjoyed, as is usually the case, the peasants seemed to have the most fun. Another kind of odd feature in the stage set ups was the fenced in aisle that connected the photo pit and the sound engineers little island. Sadie Dupuis from Speedy Ortiz said she felt like a bride and groom would be walking to the stage. I kind of liked it because it created these convenient corners at center stage that you could lean against.

Prior to the festival, the mantra put out by Shaky Knees was all about the limited parking and not driving to the festival was strongly encouraged. The warnings did the trick and most people stayed nearby and took cabs or Marta to the fest. That left plenty of street parking for people like me who chose to drive in each day. The fest also spawned some enterprising pop up paid parking lots. Near the Dairy Queen on North Avenue two parking lot attendants played Strawberry Fields through their megaphone while trying to entice in some customers.

There were two entrances to the festival which undoubtedly alleviated traffic jams and the security did not go overboard in checking back packs and purses. Everything moved smoothly. The fest volunteers were super cool and helpful and thank God for the water stations. Centrally located and complete with attendants with smiling faces they made sure the masses were fully hydrated. Shaky Knees is the first large scale fest I have attended since moving from California last August. While I did not have entree to the photo pit I was surprised how little media seemed to be running around in there. In Cali, more often than not you are politely bumping elbows with all the photogs and at times it would get as crowded as the first few rows of the concert itself. Seeing the free flowing floor space at the Shaky Knees photo pit is in stark contrast to that paparazzi like free for all. That chill feeling really extended to the festival itself. It felt inclusive really. People of all ages attended and I would say the mid range age wise was probably 28-ish (or older) and maybe that is not surprising considering that part of the fest skewed toward's 90's/ early 2000's alt rock with era specific acts like Interpol, the Strokes, the Pixies, Mastodon, Wilco and Built To Spill. The age chasm was vast. Seriously, the youngest attendee was probably 3 years old and the oldest around 78. In fact, there was a fair share of older die hard couples who looked like they have probably attended hundreds of festivals in their day.

Having been to festivals where there was no shade in sight I so much appreciated the Shaky Knees site that encompassed a central park area as well as the parking lot off of the Civic Center. That parking lot was my least favorite area because the asphalt just seemed to absorb all the heat and any calming breeze seemed to stay away. The Ponce De Leon and Boulevard stages were situated in this hot zone. As I was packed in waiting to see Mac DeMarco (who I had met and chatted with very very briefly earlier in the day) the heat was downright oppressive and I must of been showing it because a sweet as hell guy in the Vip section passed me a 10 oz Coorslight. Saint Greg as he will forever be referred to, said "You really look like you could use this" and it was probably the best tasting beer I have ever downed. If that area was the most uncomfortable then the most chill venue was the gigantic field in front of the Peachtree stage. While the Vip section there may of been the largest, it only encroached on one side of the stage. The massive grass area which also contained a baseball field felt the most like a picnic area. There were groups of people playing Frisbee all three days, plus Hula hoop girls and hacky sackers. It felt like dozens of backyard parties taking place simultaneously. Backyard parties with killer entertainment. The outlining areas did have some trees and a lot of folks would sit in the shade and enjoy the scene while watching the acts on the two large jumbo tron sized video screens.

Taking a breather at Shaky Knees

Finding Shade at the Fest

Music fests are full of hard choices and this was especially the case at Shaky Knees as a lot of bands had the same set times. The following were some of my fav memories:

 Mac DeMarco:  The last time I saw Mac perform was at last year's Burgerama (in California) in front of probably 6000 screaming fans. The crowd at Shaky Knees was considerably smaller but just as enthusiastic. Mac and the boys were super affable and downright charming with their self deprecating sense of humor. The sound started off a little bumpy but the levels were quickly worked out. When Mac broke a string there was no guitar tech to remedy the situation but Mac plopped down on his butt and started re-stringing while the boys dove into an impromptu stupid funny version of "Yellow" by Coldplay. Their performance was like a huge stoner smile. Mac finished the set with "Still Together" and his now signature crowd surfing love fest. He was lovingly mauled, kissed, high fived and survived it all with a cigarette in his mouth.

The Pixies:  There are so many amazing artists making incredible music today and I can't help but think that a majority of them have in some way been shaped (whether they realize it or not) by The Pixies. Some artists are so intrinsically creative that they stir ripples in the creative consciousness, become part of the musical fabric in a truly deep way. Charles Thompson's (Black Francis's) genius has always given birth to such provocative poetry and dressed up by the rest of the Pixies, the sound, the feeling, the whole entity is pretty mind blowing. It is no wonder that their art rock inspired so many of my other top artists like Bowie and Radiohead. While I have loved and admired the Pixies music and their legacy I had never seen them live until Shaky Knees and the experience was so amazing. It felt like I was hearing these wonderfully weird songs for the first time. At times I actually felt like crying. I became fast festival friends with those around me and one guy, in particular, Lance from North Carolina was so stoked to see the Pixies. I would guess he was in his early twenties and many of those going crazy and singing along were about his age. That in and of itself made me happy. Besides being blown away by the sheer strength of the music, it was performed so incredibly well. To hear David Lovering live is to really appreciate his prowess as a drummer. The same goes with Joey Santiago and his unique guitar style. I know Pixies true believers will consider what I am about to say blasphemy but I thought Paz Lenchantin on bass was just incredible and she created a great vibe, great energy. Black Francis was on his game. There was a false start on "What Goes Boom" from Indie Cindy and he just tossed the song away, didn't start over but just went onto something else. It felt kind of awkward, like a tiny temperamental cloud burst or maybe in his mind the moment had passed and it was time to move on. There wasn't any drama involved. It showed a certain bravado. It was a fait accompli moment. No second chances and I respected that notion. In any event, Black Francis absolutely killed it. The Pixies killed it. Their Shaky Knees performance was my favorite musical experience ever.

Built To Spill:  If The Pixies are one of the pillars of Indie music they are on the art rock side then Built To Spill are on the hippie rock side, more organic, more green but also so incredibly important in shaping many of today's truly unique bands none more so than Modest Mouse. I had interviewed guitarist Brett Netson earlier in the week which was amazing and seeing him and Doug Martsch hit those sweet guitar sounds made everyone forget about the heat that day. They played a lot of classic songs and sprinkled in some new stuff off their latest album Untethered Moon including my favorite song on the album, "So" which was so incredibly beautiful. I had to pull myself away a bit early to find a spot at the Piedmont stage to see Interpol.

Interpol: If there was one performer who would surely not be wearing shorts in the heat it is Paul Banks. Interpol are consummate performers. Their music feels cool, almost muscular in tone due to Banks vocal performance. Post punk or New Wave or whatever, their songs sound timeless. The huge crowd sang along to all their favorites. Guitarist Daniel Kessler wore a full on suit and tie and did NOT sweat. How is this possible?

Fidlar: I have been covering and shooting these boys for years in LA. Somehow, quietly (or not so) and unbeknownst to me, Zach and the boys have blown up. Georgia went ga ga for these LA punkers and it was such a cool thing to witness, to feel. I mean Fidlar is always electric and kill it on stage but for some reason the ecstatic response from the crowd surprised me. I am so stoked for these guys.

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo (The Both): I have been secretly crushing on Aimee Mann for too many years to mention and I had seen Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at FYF in LA. I didn't know what to expect with both of them in this new incarnation.  It was like Aimee and Ted met in the middle to create a blend of mellow indie folk and kind of post punk pop. They sounded great and like great friends joking around and bringing conversation back to the stage.

The one and only Aimee Mann

Ted Leo without his Pharmacists

 Mini Mansions: I was eager to see Mini Mansions from LA mainly because of Michael Shuman. A multi-instrumentalist but mainly seen as the bass player (since 2007) for Queens of the Stone Age, he also played bass in Wires On Fire who I had the pleasure shooting as they "reunited" in 2013. Mini Mansions present their art pop in a new wave-ish sort of way and I love that. Some dufus who just didn't get it yelled "NICE fucking suits!"  He was so far away I doubt they heard his idiocy.

Metz: I love 3 piece bands that play heavy loud music and Metz does just that. The lead singer / guitarist Alex Edkins looks unassuming like he would work at Urban Outfitters or some record store until he cranks up his guitar. The drums and bass collide to make a grungy, garage, punk, noise rock mix. It is salt in a wound and it is great.

Speedy Ortiz: Sadie Dupuis' poetry is encased in a grungy kind of indie rock that can get quite complex, tightly woven with a roller coaster of half-step progressions and twisted guitar lines. Speedy played songs largely off of Major Arcana and their latest Foil Deer. They sounded awesome. So awesome in fact that their performance felt a little static. A little.

The Strokes:  Since the Pixies played right up until The Strokes start time (on day one) I could not stake out a place anywhere near the stage. In fact, I had to navigate through people everywhere. The Central park and surrounding areas, north, south, east and west was absolutely packed. Seeing them from so far was a little bit of a downer but they were electric as was the crowd response.

Dr. Dog: I had heard about the "Dr. Dog" experience from a true believer who could only say "They are sooooo good" and now I can finally relate. In some way the Dr. Dog vibe is like The Grateful Dead pressed through a Brian Wilson Pet Sound-ish filter.

Ride: There was a guy going nuts in the VIP section as we all waited for Ride. He was passionately pissed off that more people were not showing up to see the Oxford lads. He was screaming to all who would listen "This is fucking Ride maaaaan..... the best band in the world!" Then he babbled something about Radiohead and other bands. I must say, Ride did deserve a bigger audience (not that the crowd was that small) and they played an amazing set. I think the only reason there were not more people was that it was late on the last day and people were packing in to see Tame Impala.

Sooo many more Shaky Knees experiences. Halsey brought it. TV On The Radio played a cool set while mocking the drone that hovered over the audience. Bethany from Best Coast wished all moms a happy Mother's Day and Bob a happy birthday. They brought a big slice of California surf pop / punk to Georgia and I only wish they could of brought the cool California breeze as well. Ryan Adams is so genuine and cross blended genres to a huge crowd. Death From Above 1979 melted a lot of faces off as did Manchester Orchestra as did Mastodon. Wavves stirred in more California punk vibes and seriously have never sounded better. Palma Violets implanted visions of the Clash in my head... sounded a lot like them. Spiritualized long songs felt like lullabies as a blueberry Popsicle soothed my brain. Viet Cong were pretty rad and I had never heard of them until I saw them. Same with Kevin Devine. Surfer Blood was super chill. Haerts impressed everyone who saw them.

Shaky Knees was so incredibly immersive. My senses were so blitzed, so overloaded with creative sights and sounds that for days after I felt really really bored. It was so much fun and offered me memories to last a lifetime. I have no complaints except the fact that Brand New and The Pixies were playing at exactly the same time (why...... why Shaky Knees?). I am already looking forward to next year. Kudos and a thousand thanks to Tim Sweetwood and his army of talented folks who put on such a great festival.


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